Tue Sep 25, 2001 | day 15
Since I last wrote to you four days ago, I have explored parts of three countries - Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany. It took a while to get used to waking up in one country and going to bed in another, but I am slowly adapting. When I landed in Paris 15 days ago, I experienced what is called "culture shock", where your mind is unable to comprehend the many differences a foreign country has. In the airport that day, I was unable to do ANYTHING for about 15 minutes.
Now I treat the differences each country has as a game and not as a problem. When I arrived in Gent, Belgium after taking an evening train from Luxembourg, it struck me that I had no idea what language was spoken, what the currency was or anything about the history and itīs culture. But instead of going into shock, I was excited and thrilled! A whole entire REGION of the world that I could learn about from scratch - not by reading books or watching documentaries - but by walking its streets and watching its society and daily life IN PERSON! Itīs getting easier and easier to learn the layout of each city I visit.
Like Luxembourg City, Gent, Belgium was a pleasant surprise. On the train towards Belgium, I sat next to two Dutch guys who said that I shouldnīt go to their home town of Brussels, the capitol of Belgium, but rather head northwest to the small town on Gent. I took their advice and spent a day exploring the small town and its many churches and old abbeys. I lucked out and arrived on the day of The Dancing Cow Festival, a celebration that has been in this city for 1,500 years. I walked around the festival feeling great, drinking Belgian beer (the best and cheapest beer I have ever had) and watching happy children, dressed and painted to look like cows, running around and doing what kids do best: having fun.
I liked Gent so much that I stayed an extra night, just so I could walk around the city at night along the cobblestone streets. The weather was pleasant and the air was still. So still in fact that the waters perfectly reflected the beautiful buildings and castles that stand along the canals. These canals run everywhere through the city.
I never believed that Europeans could be so friendly. When I arrived in Gent, I had no idea how to take a bus and find the hostel that I was to stay at that night - and I had a feeling that my ignorance was obvious to everyone around. A guy with long greasy hair and a leather jacket sat next to me on the bus. "I will show you which stop you need to take. I will walk you to the hostel," he said. Immediately my alarm of suspicion started ringing in my head. How could I trust this guy? I had thoughts of him leading me down a dark alley, pulling a weapon and mugging me. So, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, I responded "OK! Thanks! That would be great!"
As each stop came and went, I was thinking of ways to keep safe while he lead me around. When he said that this was our stop coming up, I looked to see if the supposed castle was there. (My guide book told me there would be one at the bus stop) It was there.
I needed to stay in control of the situation. I kept him standing in front of me at all times. I chatted with him as we walked, telling him how nice he was for going out of his way like this. At the same time, I took out my pocket knife and opened the blade. I held it tightly, concealing it behind my backpack which I wore on my chest. If he was to try anything at all, I would be prepared.
He told me his name and asked me about my travels. I was pleasant back to him, but always on guard, conscious of the fact that the streets we walked on were quiet but never void of other people. I asked him how much farther it would be to the hostel, testing his geography skills. "Oh, itīs just over the bridge up there." Sure enough, after going over a small bridge, we were at the "De Draecke" hostel. Once I saw the familiar International Hostel symbol, I sheathed my knife and thanked him again for the help.
I wonder if he could see in my face how relieved I was?
After the pleasantly quiet and safe city of Gent, I traveled onto Amsterdam in The Netherlands (Sept 23). Talk about a complete OPPOSITE way of life! Before I arrived in Amsterdam, I had always thought that it would be like Las Vegas: loose in ethics and morals, but never really crossing the line of inappropriate. I discovered in my first evening that Amsterdam has gone way over that line. The city is much crazier than I imagined. I walked out of the train and immediately smelled marijuana (which is legal here). The red light district is about a quarter of the size of the city. Itīs windows are filled with sex objects, magazines and videos. Prostitutes also fill windows, as if store-front mannequins have come to life, winking and smiling at you as you pass. At night, seedy drug dealers would ask you if you wanted harder drugs. They repeated to those that passed them their same broken-English enticement: "Since you are special, man..." or "Some Coke, brother? I got some good stuff."
At first, I thought the city had no shame at all. Other than the Christian hostel I stayed at (smack-dab in the middle of the red light district), all I saw of Amsterdam the first night was sex and lust.
But as night lead into day and I started exploring the rest of the city, I learned that it has a charm similar to what I believe Venice has. Amsterdam has many outdoor cafes along the canals. Accordion players entertain the relaxed coffee-drinking (and pot-smoking) guests. And there are bikes. LOTS OF THEM. When I exited the train station, I almost fell over by how many bikes populate this city. Every single pole, gate, fence and bar has a bike locked to it. There is a four-story parking lot JUST FOR BIKES. If I spent the time, I could have counted upwards of 1,000 bikes parked just within the range of my vision.
In the afternoon (Sept 24), I walked to the house of Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who wrote a diary while in hiding from the Nazis. I imagine you know who I am talking about, considering that her diary has sold more copies than any other book in history (with the exception of The Holy Bible). I had hoped to visit the house (actually, itīs an apartment) and walk through itīs four stories - but I was DENIED ENTERANCE! Due to the added security after The Incident in the US, they did not allow anyone to enter with luggage or large backpacks. They wouldnīt even allow me to leave my backpack in the lobby! But I made the best of the situation and sat on a bench and read the free guide imagining I was touring the famous building across the street.
At 3pm (Sept 24), I jumped on a train heading for Germany. I arrived in Munster, Germany at 5:30p and was greeted by a good friend of mine, Tini Allhoff. Tini, a 23 year old German, had worked with me in the mountains during the summer. It was great to see her again. I should be staying here at her apartment for about 4 days.
Sorry for such a long e-mail, but the cyber cafes are getting more and more expensive as I go. Hopefully I will have more frequent (yet shorter) e-mail updates when I get into Eastern Europe, where everything is cheaper.
Take Care Everyone!